Rarely and perhaps not in modern times has a presidential campaign more resembled the classic 1957 film, “A Face in the Crowd.” Written by Budd Schulberg and starring Andy Griffith, Patricia Neal and Walter Matthau, the storyline follows an Arkansas hayseed named Larry “Lonesome” Rhodes (Griffith), whom Marcia Jeffries (Neal) discovers in a county jail.
Jeffries has a local radio show on which she interviews interesting characters. She finds Rhodes irresistible and puts him on the air. Rhodes becomes a sensation, eventually climbing the ladder to his own network TV show and then, as politicians approach him for endorsements, a self-described kingmaker.
I think of Rhodes when I watch Donald Trump. The two have much in common. Rhodes’ view of women seems to mirror Mr. Trump’s. In one scene, Rhodes says, “A guitar beats a woman every time.” He marries more than once and has several affairs during and in between those marriages.
As he becomes intoxicated with a beverage clearly not the milk of human kindness, Rhodes brags: “I’m not just an entertainer. I’m an influence, a wielder of opinion, a force a force!”
Later as his political and cultural demise approaches, Rhodes says this about his audience when he thinks the microphone is off (Jeffries has kept it on to expose him as a fraud and make amends for creating a monster): “Those morons out there? Shucks, I could take chicken fertilizer and sell it to them as caviar. I could make them eat dog food and think it was steak. You know what the public’s like? A cage of guinea pigs. Good night, you stupid idiots. Good night, you miserable slobs. They’re a lot of trained seals. I toss them a dead fish and they’ll flap their flippers.”
Rent or buy the film if you haven’t seen it. Think of Mr. Trump as you watch Lonesome Rhodes, his rise and eventual fall, as ego and arrogance lead to the self-immolation of his career and life.
Mr. Trump’s braggadocio about how he plans to bully Russian President Vladimir Putin and free American hostages held by Iran, even before he is sworn in as president, excites his supporters, but lacks any credible specifics. Perhaps Mr. Trump thinks the force of his personality is greater than Russian weaponry or the coming Iranian nuclear bomb. If so, he should not be allowed anywhere near the Oval Office.
Mr. Trump has tapped into a deep anger among many members of the public who hate Washington and its dysfunction. He rightly lambasts politicians who rarely live up to their promises and especially Republicans for too often surrendering to Democrats, a party to which until fairly recently he belonged. But if he wants to tear down the establishment, he must offer something of substance in its place.
Mr. Trump is a chameleon, having held contradictory positions on various issues over the years as it suits him. He fits the dictionary.com definition of demagogue: “A person, especially an orator or political leader, who gains power and popularity by arousing the emotions, passions, and prejudices of the people.” That’s Lonesome Rhodes. That’s also Donald Trump.
Mr. Trump is a serial violator (and he’s not alone in this) of Ronald Reagan’s “11th Commandment,” which states that Republicans are never to speak ill of a fellow Republican. There’s a good reason for this. If Republicans trash Republicans, by the time a nominee is chosen, the party has given Democrats a slew of disparaging sound bites they can use as political ammo in the general election campaign. Not a smart move.
In the film, Mel Miller (Matthau) delivers one of Schulberg’s best lines about Rhodes: “I’ll say one thing for him, he’s got the courage of his ignorance.”
So does Mr. Trump, who, to give just one example, claims the Bible is his favorite book, but can’t name any of its chapters, or even a single verse. Lonesome Rhodes would have known how to fake it. Mr. Trump might consult the Gideon version in any of his hotel rooms.
• Cal Thomas is a nationally syndicated columnist. His latest book is “What Works: Common Sense Solutions for a Stronger America” (Zondervan, 2014).